Expecting a city of history, conflict and religion, Stephanie Holmes discovers a multitude of treasures — and a foodie heaven — in beautiful, baffling Jerusalem

Sitting alone in the shade on a white plastic chair, a woman softly weeps into a wad of paper napkins. Cast aside on her lap, a prayer book reveals pages of Hebrew script, curling beautifully into words that will hopefully bring healing to whatever burden has left her so bereft.

Prayers tucked into cracks at Jerusalem's Western Wall. Photo / Stephanie Holmes For Travel
Prayers tucked into cracks at Jerusalem's Western Wall. Photo / Stephanie Holmes For Travel

Steps away, the lower portion of the Western Wall's towering height is obstructed from view by a crowd of women, hands outstretched on the sun-warmed stone. Some also weep, others are lost in contemplation, rocking forward and back while reciting words quietly under their breath. At their feet lie the beginnings of a carpet of white paper — prayers once tucked into the Wall's cracks and crevasses, since fallen and discarded on the ground. With more than a million pieces of paper tucked into the wall each year, these ancient cracks have limits to how many prayers they can physically absorb. Are the ones that remain the prayers chosen to be answered by God, the ones cast aside not worthy of redemption?

The stones themselves date back to 19 BCE, the time of King Herod, and prayers have been offered here for centuries. The Wall's most famous recent visitor was Donald Trump, the first sitting US President to visit the site. Like so many before him, he pulled a note from the pocket of his (ill-fitting) suit and tucked it into a small crack. Wouldn't you just love to know what he prayed for?

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Law dictates men and women cannot pray together, so the sexes stand separated by a thin dividing fence. Its even-spaced gaps enable curious tourists to steal sneaky glances and take surreptitious photos across the divide.

Interested to see what happens on the men's side, I peer through a gap and watch a Hasidic Jew in his pristine overcoat and black hat, who has clearly decided his prayer deserves a higher audience. He throws it in the air, again and again, trying to reach the cracks metres above him. It keeps falling back to earth, yet still he throws until finally it sticks in the branches of one of the caper trees growing incongruously from the limestone blocks. Satisfied, he picks up his plastic shopping bags and walks away, his prayer now safe for the holy Wall to decide its fate.

Israel has called to me since I was a child. My grandmother was born here to Russian immigrants; and it was in Jerusalem that she met my grandfather, a British RAF pilot stationed here in the 1940s. Choosing love over religion, she became estranged from her family and spoke little of them when she arrived in England to start her new life.

No one is really sure how many siblings she had, or where the family ended up, so there's a chance I'm passing distant relatives as I turn the corners of the Old City's laneways, searching people's faces for similarities to my own. No great recognition strikes and although I thought my trip to Israel would be about rediscovering my family's lost roots — like so many others who make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land — it becomes about so much more. But not for me the delusions of Jerusalem Syndrome; a sudden obsession with a newfound connection to God. Instead I become enchanted with the city itself.

For a non-believer, Jerusalem is a beautiful, baffling mass of contradictions and conundrums. The past is tangible, from the Roman cobblestones underfoot, to the glimmering gold of the Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount, to the ancient limestone buildings the colour of age-yellowed paper.

I'd intended to swot up before my trip but starting with the history chapter in the Lonely Planet, I was lost almost as soon as I'd begun. How can you learn more than 5000 years of history in just a few weeks? How can the pages of a book teach you the true story of a city for which conflict and division has become a centuries-long fact of life?

Woodfired eggplant, tahini, pomegranate and coriander at The Eucalyptus, Jerusalem. Photo / Stephanie Holmes
Woodfired eggplant, tahini, pomegranate and coriander at The Eucalyptus, Jerusalem. Photo / Stephanie Holmes

For me, it was too much. I resigned myself to being an observer, not an expert. It became a pilgrimage of the senses, and one I will never forget.

Of course, there's no escaping religious history in Israel, especially in Jerusalem. There's the Western Wall and its mesmerising daily study of faith and humanity; the calls to prayer from the minarets of the mosques in the Muslim Quarter; and the hallowed beauty of the Christian Quarter's Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Consecrated in the year 335, people now queue for hours inside the musty walls and incense-thick air to touch, for just a few seconds, a stone where Christ was said to be crucified.

On the cobblestones of Via Dolorosa, groups of pilgrims follow the path that Jesus is believed to have walked on the way to his crucifixion. We stop to let a contingent of Italians pass by on their way to one of nine Stations of the Cross. In polo shirts and matching white baseball caps, they look like any other tour group you'd see in any tourist destination in the world, apart from the fact they are following a priest, a man bearing a large wooden cross, and someone on guitar, singing songs of Jesus.

There's also no escaping the fact this is a country under extreme division. Young Israeli Defence Force troops are on every corner, serving out their compulsory military service with good grace but the threat of danger ever present. Less than 36 hours before my plane had touched down in Tel Aviv, a 23-year-old female Israeli police officer had been stabbed at Damascus Gate, dying in hospital. Three Palestinians armed with knives and a home-made gun had been shot and killed. The site of the attacks was just 10 minutes' walk from my hotel.

But the city feels far safer than I had previously imagined, with an infectious buzz about it like nowhere I've ever been before. In the laneways of the Muslim Quarter's Arab Market, every doorway reveals a new treasure — an Armenian ceramics shop, the owner sitting at the back, hidden like a Where's Wally puzzle; boys juicing endless bunches of carrots ready for the end of the day's Ramadan fast; a display of colourful spices just crying out for a photo.

At night, parts of the Old City become even more alive. When the stallholders from the Machane Yehuda market shut up shop for the day, young Israelis come out to party at the bars that line the market's alleyways. There's a booming craft brewery scene in Israel and plentiful bars in which to sample them. The nightlife continues into the early hours but, for us, jetlag takes hold and we admit defeat.

Moshe Basson, head chef and owner of The Eucaplyptus, Jerusalem. Photo / Stephanie Holmes
Moshe Basson, head chef and owner of The Eucaplyptus, Jerusalem. Photo / Stephanie Holmes

Walking back to our hotel after midnight, just me and my blonde Aussie travel companion, we're not bothered by any passers-by and we arrive home refreshed, deliberating whether we should sleep or go to the Western Wall to see it late at night. I can't guarantee this feeling of safety is a constant, but it was certainly a welcome surprise from the Israel I thought I knew from stories I'd seen in the news.

If there is one constant in Israel, it's food. Everywhere we go we are fed as if we are starving pilgrims coming in from the cold. We have a seemingly infinite-course dinner at Machneyuda restaurant, where the food is as good as the atmosphere and we leave with barely any room for the cocktails still to come.

We should have learned our lesson the previous night at The Eucalyptus, where acclaimed chef Moshe Basson charmed us with his gentle spirit and elaborate tasting menu. Basson was the founder of the slow food movement in Israel and guests should be prepared for a lengthy dinner. Pace yourself; you'll be wise to leave a little on your plate at each course, as each new mouthful is more delicious than the last and, should you have the stamina, the last mouthful will be a long time coming.

As we make our way through the piling plates in front of us, Basson tells us about his love of food, his experimentation with edible indigenous plants, and the importance of family in his story of success. His son has come back to work with him in the Eucalyptus kitchen, after training in Lima with acclaimed Peruvian chef Gaston Acurio, but it seems Basson senior is still the star.

Ceramics shop in the Arab Market, in Jerusalem's Muslim Quarter. Photo / Stephanie Holmes
Ceramics shop in the Arab Market, in Jerusalem's Muslim Quarter. Photo / Stephanie Holmes

Diners take turns to politely interrupt our conversation, wanting to personally thank the chef for their meals. An American man with two gangly teenage sons promises tickets to any US Open Basson would care to watch; a woman who is apparently a famous New York Jewish restaurateur patiently waits to get her photo taken with her hero. Basson takes it all in his stride. It seems he too is used to being a part of Jerusalem's beautiful, baffling, perfect pilgrim trail.

CHECKLIST
Getting there: Cathay Pacific flies from Auckland to Tel Aviv, via Hong Kong.

Staying there: The Mamilla is a luxury hotel on historic Mamilla Ave, less than 10 minutes' walk to the Old City. From its rooftop bar and restaurant it has views of the Tower of David and the city's walls.

Eating there: Kosher restaurant The Eucalyptus is open Sunday to Thursday, closed on Fridays, and until 8.15pm on Saturdays (the Sabbath).

Further information: See new.goisrael.com

Spice shop in the Arab Market, in Jerusalem's Arab Quarter. Photo / Stephanie Holmes
Spice shop in the Arab Market, in Jerusalem's Arab Quarter. Photo / Stephanie Holmes

For more of Stephanie Holmes' trip, go Facebook.com/nzhtravel